Feature
February 3, 2014

France fails science test

Marcel Kuntz, John Davison and Agnes E. Ricroch explain how politics beat reason.

French politcians prepare to debate a GMO ban in the National AssemblyCredit: AFP/Getty Images

France does not walk in the footsteps of Norman Borlaug. Half a century of rising farm productivity has let France forget the importance of plant breeding. We may not suffer from food shortages but farmers face major economic and agronomic challenges. Modern plant biotechnology can address them in an environmentally friendly way, so why not use it along with other environmentally sustainable techniques? Alas in France, politics has replaced science-based decision making. 

In 2007 President Sarkozy’s government organized a phony “debate” on the environment. Invited participants included several green activists but science was not given a role in this highly political play. The government had agreed in advance to ban GMO cultivation. The deal was that in return, green organisations would take nuclear power off their agenda. French farmers were the losers. They had been increasing their cultivation of GM maize, a variety with inbuilt insect-resistance, since 2005. But they lacked the political clout to combat the decision. 

Anti-GMO activists in Carcassonne, southern France rip open bags of a Monsanto-produced maize.Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Afterwards a problem arose. According to EU law, a ban on GMOs had to be backed by scientific data. The government created an ad hoc scientific committee to work on potential risks. In January 2008, the President of this committee produced a document allegedly demonstrating that GM maize cultivation harmed biodiversity. The fact that 12 out of 15 members of the committee refuted these conclusions did
not stop the government filing a so-called “safeguard clause” to the European Commission (EC) to ban GM maize cultivation. This ban was cancelled in the autumn of 2011 by the European Court of Justice and by the highest judicial authority in France, the Conseil d’Etat.

In spring 2012, before the general elections (which Sarkozy lost), the government filed another document claiming GM maize caused environmental harm; this time as part of a judicial procedure called an “emergency measure” submitted to the EC. In a study we published, in the June 2013 issue of the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology (“What the French ban of Bt MON810 maize means for science-based risk assessment?”), we examined the arguments raised by the French government point by point. We found that contrary to the government’s claim, the French document contained no new scientific evidence. An independent evaluation by the European

Food Safety Authority (EFSA) later reached the same conclusion. The government document had cherry-picked inferior studies to suit their political aims. More alarmingly, authentic scientific reports including those of EFSA, were distorted, misquoted and falsely interpreted. Scientific articles that provided a different picture were ignored. We also drew attention to rebuttals from several authors who had been misrepresented in the French government document.

In the summer of 2013, the Conseil d’Etat cancelled the Sarkozy ban once again. However, the new Hollande government, which comprises a number of “green” ministers, announced that it would look for ways to prolong the ban.

The problem is not only that French farmers have lost the freedom of choice that is required  by EC law (activists’ pressure and vandalism also restrict their freedom) but that science and scientists are being dragged into these political manoeuvres. 

Anti-GM advertising on the Paris Metro.Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The current French risk assessment body (Haut Conseil des Biotechnologies) is composed of two subcommittees. One is merely a forum of lobby groups (in which anti-GMO organisations dominate). Several members resigned to protest the biased composition of the committee, perversely leaving the anti-GMO groups free to publish their ideologically motivated recommendations. The second, the so-called “scientific committee”, was by-passed when the government wrote its “emergency measure” document. The committee protested but this time no one resigned.

Obtaining funding for agricultural biotechnology research is virtually impossible in France and field trials have been abandoned. The French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA) has gradually become more reticent about GMO research due to the repeated destructions of its GMO field trials and other political pressures. INRA has now de facto abandoned GMO research. This failure of science-based decision making is a loss to our agriculture, and diminishes the international standing of France’s scientific tradition.

Marcel Kuntz is Research Director at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in the Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale in Grenoble.

John Davison was the Research Director at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) Versailles from 1992 to 2009.

Agnes E. Ricroch is a plant scientist and a member of the Academy of Agriculture of France.